My parents in 1980 in Fairfax, VA (home & wedding)
A Journey to Two Weddings
I think for many of us, our minds and hearts have not been able to waver from what we’ve been seeing in Afghanistan from the Afghan civilians in the last few weeks.
The most striking images are planes filled to the brim with Afghan civilians escaping for a better life, and all of those running along side the planes who couldn't make it in who would risk it all for a chance to leave the country.
To me, and to so many Vietnamese-Americans, seeing what is happening in Afghanistan is triggering and it is such an emotional experience. When I saw passengers inside those huge aircraft and people clinging to the planes - I saw Saigon, I saw my gia đình. I saw my parents, my aunts, my uncles, and my friends.
So as you just ran through that imagery in your mind - I’m going to switch gears for a little bit. Now picture this - I just got married a little over a month ago! I’m definitely still riding the high of our wedding day.
That day meant so much to me and one of the big reasons it meant so much was because I was bringing someone into my family, and I knew how much it meant to my parents to welcome a new daughter into their family.
You see, family is everything to the Vietnamese people. But the interesting thing is… for the children of Vietnamese refugees such as myself, it is a great challenge to really know our parents and specifically to know about their experiences escaping Vietnam. It’s a question I’ve asked myself and other family members of my generation… How many of us actually know our parents? How many of us actually know what it took for them to be here with us in the United States now? And this doesn’t go just for children of Vietnamese refugees, right? How many first-generation immigrant children have a strong sense of who their parents were before coming to America? What were their hopes and dreams?
I will say that for me, it took me almost my whole adult life to learn my parents refugee story. That’s because growing up, they never made the focus about them, it was all about me and my sister and supporting our interests and feeding our passions. When the subject shifted to them, I was always told it wasn’t important, the important thing was that I was living my best life and a better life than they were afforded.
It wasn’t until later in my adulthood that I felt something inside of me to really know everything about my parents. As I grew and matured, I understood that my understanding of myself was linked to my understanding of my parents. So I made really intentional efforts to sit down and speak with them, the problem was I didn’t always know the right things to ask and the right environment to create.
My parents both grew up in Tuy Hoa, Vietnam. It’s a coastal city near the center of the country. My mother was one of 8 children, and my father was the one of 9 children. So yeah I have more cousins, aunts, and uncles than I can keep track of. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, my grandma on my mom’s side escaped Vietnam by boat with some of her children. She started her life in America near Pittsburgh and eventually made her way to Fairfax, Virginia. She worked in restaurants cleaning dishes and eventually made her way up to be a line cook.
One of the children that didn’t leave with her was my mom. The reason wasn’t because my grandmother didn’t want to take her… It was because when you’re escaping a country the way that my family had to escape a country, you can’t always go together. You have to make split second decisions. I can’t tell you how many families I’ve met who didn’t leave together and the fact that they had to make the journey’s separately eats away at them to this day.
Many of these journeys happened under the cloak of darkness. Vietnamese refugees had to evade being caught. They didn’t have the luxury of not using every square inch of those boats to escape. And once they did get on those boats they were at the mercy of the ocean.
It took my mom 10 tries. Yes, one, two three… ten tries to successfully flee Vietnam. And guess who was on the boat on her tenth and successful escape attempt? Yes, you guessed it, my dad. Although my parents grew up in the same town, they weren’t an item. My dad often jokes that my mom didn’t really like him when they lived in Tuy Hoa. But that process of leaving Vietnam on a boat, by night, and the uncertain journey to the Philippines, where they lived in a refugee camp for over a year before coming to America, it bonded them for life. And in that refugee camp, they fell in love. And because Vietnamese refugees were allowed asylum in American, they resettled to Fairfax, where they could be reunited with my grandmother. And after they were together for a few years, they got married and they had me. As their journey continued, my dad worked at convenience stores and as kitchen staff to pay his way through community college and start a career in IT. My mom taught herself to cut hair and now owns her own hair salon, where I spent pretty much my whole childhood sweeping up customers hair for tips.
I often think to myself - wow, ten times it took my mom to escape Vietnam. And if she had escaped on the ninth, eighth, sevent, sixth, fifth, fourth, third, second, first try… she wouldn’t have left with my dad. Would she have met someone else… would I even be here. As hard as it was to escape, if it had been any easier… I wouldn’t be alive today.
One thing I want to discuss is the idea of resilience. Refugee and immigrant families have to be so incredibly resilient and have to make great sacrifices during the totality of their journeys. In the process of leaving your country, you’re left with nothing in terms of possessions, but you’re also leaving big parts of your identity and what makes you who you are in the process, whether that’s your profession, hobbies, or role within your community. Resilience becomes a part of your identity, but it often comes at the cost of other defining characteristics. It’s a humbling thought to sit with.
For example my grandma was a business woman in Vietnam, but she fled Vietnam and she could only be a dishwasher or work in a kitchen in the states. I had relatives with medical degrees in Vietnam, and left, came to America and had to work night shifts at the convenience store, as did my father. And knowing that they had to start with nothing, but also start anew with leaving behind things that personally defined who they were, is amazing. You wouldn't be able to guess that my dad loves to be creative and my mom's dream job is to be a school bus driver and get kids safely to school. They had to do what they had to do, and they lost parts of themselves in the process, that they work hard on regaining and making a part of their identity. You just know them as hard working people, resilient people - but they're much more than that. Knowing my parents background and thinking about where they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago - it instilled in me the values of respecting and having having empathy for every single person I come across. Because, you don't know their past, their present circumstances, or who they are destined to become just because of what point they are in their life right now.
In my departing note. I want to revisit those images I first. The Afghans clinging to air craft on runways and the Vietnamese piling on top of each other to reach helicopters after the fall of Saigon. And remember this, The immigrant experience is so much of the American experience, you dig back far enough and you’ll find an immigrant who had to be resilient and faced struggles similar to ones my family did. Their stories don't necessarily begin, or end, or even touch America. There are more than 80 million people across the world who are displaced - whether in their own countries as a part of conflict or seeking refuge in other countries. These are people like my parents who deserve to live life with dignity.
So when you see pictures coming out of Afghanistan, or Tigray, or Syria, or Burundi, or Venezuela, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or El Salvador, or Honduras, Yemen, South Sudan... and I could go on and on. When you see those pictures think about me and my family and their story. Think about my parents joy in being able to celebrate my marriage and the work it took them to see that day.
And Think about all of our collective privilege. The ability to live your life with dignity and safety isn't just something that American's should have and should deny to others based on the fact that we happened to have been born here.
Think about what this country stands for, and how asylum is a human right.
Something I learned as a son of refugees, is that you can't go searching for a magic moment or single conversation. When people experience trauma, it takes years, it takes being intentional and considerate and creating the right environment for many conversations to occur. But, if it means enough to you to learn more about a person, especially your family, make it known how much it matters to you, and be patient and understanding. And if you keep trying you'll get there... and it will be 100% worth it.